Crazy Americans

airport line

When you fly in to Charles de Gaulle airport, there’s a mad rush to get off the plane. Then you’re herded to a holding pen-like area, where you wait to go through passport control. It’s complete chaos: everyone surging forward, en masse, trying to get around everyone else, regardless of who got there first. That is, except for the Americans, who wait patiently for their turn, but quickly learn that if they don’t assert themselves, they’re going to spend their entire vacation in that stifling, airless space.

If you leave 4.5-inches of space in front or behind you in France, you may as well not even be there as people take that to mean you’re not waiting. I know that because they act very surprised when I tap them on the shoulder and point out that yes, I are indeed standing in that line with my luggage, just like they are, to check in to my flight. I’m not just hanging out at the airport with a suitcase because I had nothing better to do.

So you have to constantly be on your toes and you can’t let your guard down for a second. If you do, you’ll never get anywhere. It’s pretty exhausting.


When you arrive at Dulles Airport, in spite of its prison-like atmosphere, there’s a person guiding folks towards the correct lanes, which are clearly marked. Although the line can be ginormous, and everyone’s complaining about the wait, it’s pretty calm, since no one’s trying to skirt around you to slide ahead. You just stand there, red-eyed, inching forward. I don’t know why Americans are complaining about waiting in line: you just stand there and mind your own business until it’s your turn.

If you want to be a knucklehead, you can catch up on your cell phone calls, speaking as though amplification technology hasn’t reached your Blackberry, broadcasting to all within earshot personal details of your doctor-diagnosed discharge, or conduct your boring business meeting for all of us to be privy to, whether we want to be or not. (I’m in the “not” camp.) Making things worse, are those stupid headset thingys sticking out of peoples ears. They remind me of the corduroy elephant bell-bottoms I wore in the 70s. I’m embarrassed for those people when I think about their future. If you do wear one of those, please take it off. You look silly.

I love waiting in line in America. You just stand there and coast, catching up on personal thoughts, checking everyone out. You don’t have to worry about anything. You just stand there. Like this morning, when I was checking people out, wondering how anyone in their right mind could wear shorts, flip-flops, and tank tops on a frigid-cold airplane.

When I was leaving Paris last week, going through Mr. Sarkozy’s new passport control on the way out (“Dude, we’re leaving! What are you going to do, deport departing passengers?”) there’s some semblance of a line.

Actually, not.

One French chap was kinda pretending he was looking for someone, hovering and milling about, putting on a good show of it all. The Canadian couple in front of me was on to his game and going ballistic as he scoped out the area in front of them, until he moved forward, finally sliding in front of some less-suspecting folks and blending into the mass. He shaved about 20 minutes off his wait. Pourquoi pas?

I’ve had expert instruction on how to butt in line in Paris, and I can do it with the best of them. But I’ve had to curb my instincts to cut in line here in the states, since I don’t want to get punched out. If I see an opening on either side of the people in front of me, I have to restrain myself from slipping ahead. I assume they don’t live by the same rules that I now do, so I let them be. Then again, we’re flying domestically. But if we were en route to France, I’d certainly try to hop in front of them.

Southwest

And why not? After all, they have to learn sometime. And the sooner, the better. Except I’m getting a bit spoiled by the new line system at Southwest: it’s so organized! You check in online, print a boarding pass with your number on it, and—get this—they actually board according to the number printed on your ticket.

When I was waiting by the numbered post, the people in front of me looked down at the number on my ticket, A 17, and they were A 20 and 21…and they actually said to me, “Oh, you should be in front of us. Go ahead.”

Crazy Americans.

50 comments

  • I was waiting in line in Germany once, for the bathroom during the opera intermission, and there was 4 feet between a person and the door. So I stepped in. She went ballistic and started yelling at me in German. (which I don’t speak)

    I said I didn’t speak it in English and French, and another gal (an American expat, turns out) told me what was going on. She asked where I lived, and I told her Paris.

    “Ahhh!” she said. “That explains it. The Parisians would be standing with their nose against the door sniffing out what you were doing behind it!”

  • My boyfriend had a near traumatizing experience with some little old french ladies cutting in front of him at the bakery in Paris. After about the 6th one, he actually gave up and walked away!

  • The french people are just selfish ignorant queuers but thats how most of them are in general. Thats why the rest of Europe often make fun of the French (especially Parisians) because the way the French think that the universe is centered around them and that they are always superior.
    Americans on the the other hand often tend to be exactly the same when going to Europe. They think they are the primary specie and that the rest of the people are secondary. They are noisy, pushy and in in flight queues they always think that they can bring twice the luggage than everyone else and gets mad when they are told that they can’t (often they bring a larger handluggage than I bring luggage for an entire month of traveling).

    Everyone are different, but the Americans are by no means angles when it comes to queueing.

  • This will be our fourth visit to Paris in as many years, and we confidently expect to yet again find Charles de Gaulle airport the most difficult part of the trip. Each time there seems to be another confusing bit of signage (or lack thereof) to make it difficult to find out how to get where we’re going — and yes, the lineups are crazy. As Canadians, we’re pretty challenged in butting-in skills, tending to proceed patiently and politely forward. At least you find some humour in the scene — maybe I should print this post to read and chuckle over while we’re standing in the line-up in June.

  • See, I didn’t know that about the French people…

    I need my space around me, if you are too close, you’ll know it. I guess I’d go crazy in Paris…

    Last time I traveled from Montreal to LA, a smelly and grumpy man in his late fifties squeezed in front of me, (and of other people, including a pregnant women carrying her two years old!) not once (at the coffee shop), not twice (in the infos line, since the plane was terribly late), but THREE times (in the boarding line too)!

    I swear, after you’ve waited more than five hours for your plane and you know you already missed your connection, you want to kill that guy! And it’s getting worst when you tell him that this pregnant and exhausted woman was there first and the response you get is a flat: “No she wasn’t!”
    Argh!

  • Whenever I’m lucky enough to travel to Paris, I try to arrange it so I arrive on Sunday morning. The airport is nearly empty and it’s so easy to go through customs, bag claim, taxi lines, etc. Leaving Paris is another story. That’s always a mess.
    David, about those ear things, I couldn’t agree more. If you have to wear them while driving, fine, but otherwise…..take those things off. They look SO stupid!!

  • Funny. Try getting on a bus in China. That little old lady whom you ease back for so she can board first will elbow you in the gut, hard. She takes your hesitation as a sign of weakness, not courtesy.

    Love those Southwest lines.

  • david said ” Dude, we’re leaving! What are you going to do, deport departing passengers? ”

    huh… something close to that, actually :/ …

    the fact is that someone who is leaving the country with an expired visa is not counted as deported if they let him go, but if he is arrested, he can be counted. Because administration here has detailed deportation goals to please those narrow minded archaïc nationalists, they do not hesitate to do such counterproductive and expensive actions.

    holy sh*t, four years left :( …

  • Krysalia: On Capital, on M6, they were showing how when they deport people, they have to buy them a one-way ticket back, which cost about 3000€, as opposed to a round trip ticket, which costs about 200€. So they tend to just let people go…it’s cheaper!

  • “The french people are just selfish ignorant queuers but thats how most of them are in general. Thats why the rest of Europe often make fun of the French (especially Parisians) because the way the French think that the universe is centered around them and that they are always superior”

    Hey, Kim Schultz, are you feeling any better? You should, after spitting out all that!

    Instead of just standing there feeling frustrated and angry at the whole french population (ever noticed how 99% of them are standing in line, just like you are?), politely and firmly send the jerk to the end of the line where he/she belongs. If politeness doesn’t work, yell. And stop blaming your lack of guts on others.

  • Those ear-gadgets may look stupid, but they protect your brain from cell-phone signal induced lesions. My dad died at 63 with 12 of them, all on the cell-phone side of his head. So, it’s a lesser evil. Deal with it.

  • Pushy line cutters make my blood boil, whether at the bank, on the lovely roads in the DC metro area, or in an airport. Thanks for the warning, David. When I arrive at CDG on the morning of May 12, after a sleepless night – God have pity on anyone who cuts in front of me. I better make one of my 4 oz. carry on liquids a small vial of vodka to calm my nerves….

    Speaking of alcohol, do the French enjoy Bloody Marys? Any suggestion on where to get a good one in Paris? Meet me there and I’ll treat…

  • When we arrived at CDG last summer we got off the plane and followed along with the herd of people, got out baggage, and ended up at the exit. We never had to go through any passport thing and we were very confused as to how we even got out of the place.

  • How about those people who act as if there isn’t a long queue waiting behind them? Just yesterday I was behind this old dude at the deli section of my local supermarket and he took 10 minutes to explain that he wanted his ham shaved thin but not too thin, but the deli guy kept telling him that he could only do two thicknesses, shaved and thick sliced. So the old dude repeated that he wanted his in between, not shaved or thick! This kept going back and forth. Argghhh! The “discussion” was still going on when I decided to walk away and get my ham somewhere else.

  • No, it’s not just the French. I got stranded at PRG during a blizzard two years ago. All flights canceled, two ticket agents rescheduling passengers, mostly from ex-Soviet Republics. This was Eastern European line rules, cut or be cut by folks who not too long ago were navigating bread and meat lines for survival.

    One American took matters into his own hands. A gentleman walked right passed an eight-hour wait to the ticket office.

    “We ain’t havin’ that! Back of the line!” A large American about 30-passengers behind yelled.

    “I have questions,” the cutter announced.

    “We all have questions. Back of the line!” The American yelled back.

    The cutter asked, “Where are you from?”

    “New York City! Back of the line,” the American repeated.

    The cutter dropped his head and scurried to the back of the line as the entire airport applauded.

    I was disappointed to discover our closest cultural cousins, the British, were among the most obnoxious offenders in line, though maybe they were just playing by the home rules. I’m similarly disappointed to learn, David, that you’ve been lowered to such rudeness.

  • You don’t need to go to China to experience the sharp elbow of the “innocent” looking little old lady. Take yourself to ANY chinatown. I have two modes, normal (queue, relax) and chinatown mode (shoulders on full alert, lock in position, ready to tackle). Cut in line in front of me, someone is leaving in a body bag.

  • Aw shucks! You went through Dulles? I live across the street – I could have waved! :)

  • As far as I can remember, the French weren’t quite as rude and annoying as the Italians when queuing. I remember thinking at a train station in Milan, “So this why seemingly ordinary people blow public building up.”

  • The worst place to wait in line that I have experienced is Hong Kong. Waiting for a city bus, for example, people will line up in something that resembles a line. But when the bus actually comes, everyone rushes for the door and fights physically to get on first. I remember waiting for a taxi for half an hour on the street one rainy night. Finally a cab pulled up and the back door of the taxi opened automatically for me, someone came from out of nowhere behind me, hopped in, and the cab was gone before I could open my mouth to say “Hey!” The cheek!

  • Chad: Cutting in line in France isn’t considered rude—it’s normale. It’s kind of like a sport and they even have a word for it; le risquillage, or the ‘risk taker’.

    That’s why everyone stands so close to the person in front of them in line. To avoid risking someone jumping in front of them!

  • A French friend of mine thought she didn’t like living in the United States very much until six months later when she went home to France. When she returned to the US she reported that she now noticed the line jumping, crowding, sour faces and grumpy attitudes in France. She said she hadn’t realized she had become used to “American laid back ways” and “people who smile at you.”

  • Sometimes I daydream about nice even flowing traffic without your car being sucked into the wake of a speeder every 3 minutes, orderly lines, free refills on coffee, uncrowded stores, open space, bookstores with lounge chairs, etc. It’s a nice little dream. But I also realize that there are many things I dream about when I leave here. I think each side has its benefits.

  • Wow, I’ve been in Italy 20 years thinking the lack of queue etiquette was uniquely Italian. I had no idea the French are identical. In Italian airports, trying to get down stairs with a child in a stroller on the way to board the plane, Italians slalom around you. In the UK, I noticed, strangers silently pick the stroller up and help you, unasked, up or down stairs. And yet the Italians describe the British as cold and unhelpful. Hmmm. I have actually been sneered at and ridiculed as a stooge when I tried, and failed, to keep a young woman from butting into the head of the line at a train station in Italy. Oh well. That’s just the way it is here in clothing stores, in food stores, wherever. It ‘s disappointing to have to be so vigilant and outspoken, leaving no room between you and the person or car in front of you…

    America is such a young country, but it seems all different kinds people manage to respect each other in public spaces on a very frequent basis! Refreshing!

  • One of my most traumatic experiences as an American was visiting the butcher at the Asian grocery shop. I’ve always done fine in the rest of the store, but the butcher’s counter was something else. You could grab a number, and most people did, but the workers never called the numbers or even seemed to be aware that they existed. After the third time an Asian mom cut in front of me to spend 5 minutes buying 10 different meats, I realized it was up to me to make myself heard…

  • Lucy: Yes, those bookstores where you can actually browse the books. And the variety of things available in supermarkets in incredible at low prices. For example, for some reason, LeBlanc nut oils are cheaper here than they are in France!

    The flip side is that I was eating lunch the other day and the table of teenagers next to me were discussing their guns.

  • One’s definition of personal space certainly goes out the window when travelling internationally.

    In Asia, Europe and Africa, I’ve been invaded more times than I can count! One time, a Russian man was talking to me, a bit too close for comfort. So I took a step back, and he a step forward… this dance continued until I was up against a wall and here he came, closer, closer. I was relieved when an American friend happened by and rescued me from the man and the wall.

  • United Premier members must be French, this is the exact same behavior that is displayed when I line up to board in Group 1. If you leave any room in front of you, someone will immediately jump in and crowd to the front of the line. When I first gained status, I thought it was rude, and I was a bit annoyed, now I just find it amusing…

  • aaaa. theodore roosevelt rides again!

  • the line-waiting skills i developed in paris have served me extremely well in my new home, a chinese neighborhood in san francisco. it’s all about eye contact avoidance and making yourself as big as possible so nobody can slip up from behind and cut in front.

  • Although I have been cut in front of in line in the UK, it really is worse in Italy. I once did a summer study abroad course at Reading University here with my American university. We were sharing the residence hall with Italian teenagers and when they arrived queuing went right out! By breakfast on the second day we’d had enough so someone in our group told them politely but firmly that if they wanted their food they should wait like the rest of us. They remained in awe of us until they departed two weeks later.

    To Linda H and Angela Lorenz – I’m British and I agree that the Brits are cold and unfriendly. My mother has to beg people to help her down stairs with her trolley. All the friendliness I soaked up during my years in the US has shrivelled up since I came back. I can’t wait to return so I can learn how to smile again and breathe freely in the wide open spaces.

  • david said :”Krysalia: On Capital, on M6, they were showing how when they deport people, they have to buy them a one-way ticket back, which cost about 3000€, as opposed to a round trip ticket, which costs about 200€. So they tend to just let people go…it’s cheaper!”

    I must say i’m curious to know where you found that information about letting people go (???). It’s exactly the contrary, to a point that is quite frightening yet.

    Actually, in the Capital you saw, the documentary said that it was cheaper to let them go but this awfull “minister of the flag” (Hortefeux) that was invited after the documentary claimed that no matter the cost, those deportation were usefull.
    Asked by the journalist, several times, if he was really thinking that those deportations would tend to reduce a lot the amount of strangers in france, especially with the proof that most of them come back quickly – pointing that this policy is expensive and pointless, this horrible guy claimed that : “well, if you dream of a society where there would be only honnest and clean people… the truth is that this fight is a permanent one“.

    More than this archaïc, narrow minded ideology that strangers would be neither honest or clean, the problem of those pointless deportations is severely disturbing the justice system for example : there’s not enough tribunals in France for all those deportations procedures, so the strangers wait weeks in camps (detention conditions are not good at all, there is children there (!) ), and the other people cannot have their cases judged either.
    a Welcome To France ! moment indeed – as you would say, event if the world welcome is not quite accurate this time :(

  • Boy did we learn our lesson about lines at CDG! We visited France in the fall of 2006 (*loved* it) – but I didn’t leave much time between landing and catching our TGV to Avignon…

    We had our 2 1/2 year old with us, so we let everybody get off the plane in front of us so we wouldn’t hold them up and were horrified when we arrived at the huuuuuge line for the passport control area.

    A security guard took pity on me – I was six months pregnant, hadn’t slept all night, was hauling all our luggage (hubby had just had back surgery and was forbidden to pick up anything, it was crazy), had confused looking hubby, toddler *and* my mother in tow, and had a panic-striken look on my face, I’m sure, as I realized we would definitely miss our train – and he had us skip the entire line. WOW. I couldn’t believe it! How nice was that? But I definitely learned my lesson…

  • Arriving at CDG isn’t so bad. Departing is hell.

  • Like a few have mentioned, here in the US we do have our ethnic enclaves where cutting is definitely the norm. In Little Saigon, if you want that baguette or cafe sua da, pull out your money, raise you hand and squirm up to the counter. Money talks. It’s getting a little better in some places, though. If we see another “whitey” there, we usually prod them to not be shy or else they are going to go hungry. Since we don’t have to deal with cutting very much except in Little Saigon, it seems more of a fiesty game than an annoyance. Can’t be gettin’ one upped by a little wrinkly, two heads shorter than you. ;)

  • Interesting…. I can’t say I’ve had a “line” issue in France. Not long ago, though, on the metro near Belleville, there was a young man guzzling wine out of a bottle at around noon–and my first instinct was to think “trouble.” Darned if he didn’t take the leading edge of a stroller, unbidden, up and down a couple flights of stairs. I learned something from that. And as for gun love–well, it was a young French guy who showed me the shotgun he paid $100,000 for, and it’s France that has a political party solely devoted to hunters’ interests.

  • My favorite line-cutter in France was while friends and I were waiting in line to get into the Musee d’Orsay a couple of years ago. There was this elderly grandmother-aged woman who definitely got into line after us, but managed to cleverly edge her way through the winding line (especially taking advantage of the turns, where people would unconsciously stand to one side, leaving a gap for her to pass through).

    She got to about 10 people ahead of us when a couple of tall fellas (not sure where they were from) figured out what she was up to, and stood side-by-side so they absolutely blocked her path – especially at the turns. She was so frustrated, yet didn’t know what to do, so she was stuck behind these guys for the rest of the line. I wanted to find them and tell them I thought they were awesome, but sadly didn’t.

  • Have you seen the queues in Singapore? And the way they are super efficiently dealt with? They are! If you haven’t seen it you must make a trip specially for this!

  • What’s with all the hate, yo! Poor little old lady. They should have let her up front. :P As for Singapore, isn’t it in Tailand that has a VERY tough punitive system? Be careful what you wish for.;)

  • I have not yet been to France, but on a recent trip to India, I had to learn how to assert myself while waiting in lines. The lines are especially bad for tickets and to get on buses. In fact, many places have a separate queue for women so I usually went to that line (still pushy but a tad less violent than the men’s line) for our group.

  • Lines? We don’t need no stinking lines.

    Saturday afternoons at the shoe department of Printemps are a war zone. It was all I could do to stand on the perimeter watching my wife dive in to the fracas to get that pair of boots. I hope the clerks get hazard pay.

  • Thanks for the tip which will me in handy when I arrive in Paris May 3rd!

  • I’ll never understand how, after the Tube doors open, the people standing behind me on the platform slide into the carriage FIRST…!

    To Shvetha – I’d love to go to Singapore for some efficiency and cleanliness. If only they could institute those anti-spitting laws in London.

  • Well, I guess my own experiences of lines shows exceptions to many others’. I didn’t have any problems in Paris with lines…most people were pretty respectful. In fact, given the annoyingly long lines in any SNCF reservations office in the big “gares”, such as Montparnasse, Austerlitz, etc., which I experienced frequently on my recent long sejour in Paris (I also lived in France years ago), I was absolutely amazed at how respectful people were of the order in the lines…and no, they were not all foreign tourists.
    Then again, I seem to also be in a kind of “bizarro” world in terms of customer service in France, too. I had pretty uniformly (with a few exceptions, of course) good experience with ticket takers, salespersons, etc. there…I even had a number of these individuals smile at me (we were en province, so that may make things a bit different).
    As for CDG, well, like any airport, not the most pleasant place, but still head and shoulders above JFK in New York and Fiumincino in Rome in terms of international terminals, efficiency, and good public transport access to the city, etc.

    After having lived in New York City for quite a few years, I would have loved to have seen how that gallant New Yorker described in a previous post (who shamed a line cutter in Europe into not cutting) behaved in New York…my experience of both customer service and line cutting behaviors among New Yorkers is that both are worse than what is experienced in Paris. I have plenty of “war stories” of brazen line cutting by New Yorkers (“you snooze, you lose” being the predominant attitude), as well as surly, unresponsive teenagers and young people who work in the retail establishments of the city who tend to glare at you if you dare to interrupt their precious conversation time with their co-workers to actually have them do their jobs and pay attention to customers.

  • The French sound very Chinese. Although it doesn’t matter whether you are touching the guy directly in front of you or not the Chinese will still try to cut in line by elbowing you etc. So we have become like the locals at times and elbow back and stand our ground. When we visit the states and more civilized places we have to remember our manners, instead of elbowing our way up to the check out line in the local fast food joint or the check in line at the airport.
    Yes it is nice in America to stand in a queue it’s a good time to reflect and people watch. Only problem is they speak my language so I have to keep my comments to myself or comment in Chinese. It’s fun to observe cultural differences.

  • Reading all these comments really made me laugh. I thought almost every single one was fortunate enough to be traveling somewhere in the world while most people are enormously concerned about the economy and the sheer price of gas to get to and from work. What a sad, sad story – ah, waiting in line in some distant European and/or Asian City :( – my heart bleeds borscht for all of you :)

  • Jonathan: At Tang Freres, they actually have a take-a-number machine at the butcher counter, and they use it! I haven’t seen them in use elsewhere in France, or the ‘put your name on a clipboard’ in open-seating restaurants, and I don’t think we will anytime in the near future…

  • Am I the only one to find Americans worse than the French at queuing?

    They’re by no means perfect (it is indeed often a fight), but I can’t help laughing at you, David, if you think Americans are better.

  • The French sound like Indonesians when it comes to waiting in line!

    Having lived in the Los Angeles area for over 22 years, I had just recently returned to my home country, Indonesia. My biggest pet peeve here is the Indonesians’ inability to properly wait their turn … it drives me nuts! Thankfully more and more stores, banks, etc. have implemented ‘wait by number’ system, but for the most part? Watch out! (yes, the older ladies are the worst offenders…)

    Yes, I also miss waiting in line in America!

  • @ kristin: i’ve seen pregnant women ushered to the front of a long line by a guard or manager at a store more than once which is a great attitude other cities should adopt..

    also, every time i see someone pushing a cart or stroller through the metro stairs, one or a few people always stop to help them, even in high-traffic hours (or especially in high-traffic hours, since you’re doing that person a service and helping clear up the underground traffic jam!)

    maybe some french people, and americans, and british, etc etc can be rude, but overall, french people will definitely help you if you need it!

    and when little old ladies cut in front of you, who cares? have a little compassion for someone who is probably suffering from arthritis or sore legs and let it go…c’est la vie!

  • eli: I find French people, overall, quite helpful in certain situations. But on the other hand, (and I’m not the only one who’s noticed this), if you’re hauling a heavy box on the sidewalk, people won’t get out of your way.

    It’s funny because as you mentioned, they’ll be extremely helpful with a stroller on the métro stairs and will let elderly people go to the front of the line. For a while, I had to walk with a cane and it was like Moses parting the Red Sea when I walked down the sidewalks. But then in other situations, (without the cane) I’ve had people step right in front of me as if I wasn’t there.

    As for those little old ladies that aren’t as fragile as they seem (and I speak from experience, having been on the receiving end from a few sharp elbows): I think they’re just finally at that age where they’re tired of being pushed around and they realize after a certain age, they shouldn’t have to take it anymore. And I can’t say I blame them.